If popular culture, like life, is about managing expectations, then Britney Spears must be a genius.
After all, Blackout, Spears' fifth album - and her first since she became a shaven-headed, unbuckled-baby-driving girl gone wild, fueling the 24-hour celebrity cycle - comes out on Tuesday, and you've got to admit: You're pretty sure it's going to suck.
How could it not? Bad Britney is as reliable and predictable an Extra and TMZ.com headline as Good Justin, the virtuous, post-teen pop star who was her Mickey Mouse Club mate - and her ex-boyfriend.
What a fool that girl was to let Mr. SexyBack slip through her hands! Instead, she wound up with that no-talent ne'er-do-well K-Fed, who, loser though he may be, now has custody of the couple's two young sons, thanks to what a judge called Britney's "frequent and continuous use of controlled substances and alcohol."
And that's to say nothing of the paparazzi's unending parade of crotch shots, which have become so common that bloggers have taken to waxing nostalgic about the good ol' days when an inappropriately exposed Britney was worth getting worked up about.
Add to all that Spears' embarrassing, sleepwalking performance on MTV's Video Music Awards last month, and it seemed that the final nail was all but hammered into the coffin of her career. All she had to do that night in Las Vegas was show up hard-bodied, look alert, and lip-sync like she meant it. Instead, Sarah Silverman's post-debacle comment seemed dead-on: "She's amazing. She's 25 years old, and she's already accomplished . . . everything she's going to accomplish in life."
Well, maybe not everything. Because just when you thought that Blackout (Jive Records ***) was going to cut the power on Spears' pop stardom for good, it turns out that it's not so bad after all.
With expectations as low as they could go, Blackout overshoots them with ease. Like "Gimme More," the single that a vacant-looking Britney zombie-danced to at the VMAs, Blackout is a smartly produced, sleekly effective exercise in state-of-the-art escapist dance-pop.
And with an arsenal of hotshot producers at her disposal, how much does Spears actually have to do with how surprisingly good Blackout is? Almost nothing, and everything.
Contemporary pop and R&B works the way it did in the 1950s and 1960s. The producers - who, more often than not, now make their music with machines rather than musicians - have the beats and the songs. What they need is a brand-name star to customize them for.
Voice of the vocoder
On much of
, Britney's voice - never all that impressive - is electronically shifted, altered and vocoder-ized, as they say in the biz, so that she sounds not much more
than she looked on the VMAs. Even with the advantage of cagey editing, the sorry stripper-pole video for "Gimme More" couldn't succeed in making her appear to be a sentient, sensual being.
But in the studio, it hardly matters. Sure, all the heavy breathing in "Ooh Ooh Baby" and "Get Naked (I Got A Plan)" comes off as more silly than erotic, though exhibitionistic Brit does seem to be singing the truth in the latter song when she announces: "I'm not ashamed of my beauty, you can see what I got."
And Blackout is filled with jittery, booty-shaking tracks, with throbbing disco bass lines and icy synthesizer riffs that do their jobs, and do them well. The men twisting the knobs and fiddling with their laptops are an impressive bunch, starting with Timbaland protege Nate "Danjahandz" Hills, who handled "Gimme More" and two other tracks, including "Hot As Ice," which features a vocal by R&B singer T-Pain, the vocoder vocal star of the moment.
The other standout collaborators on Blackout, with four cuts, are Bloodshy & Avant, the dance-pop production team of Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, who hail from Sweden, home of Max Martin, who penned ". . .Baby One More Time. . .," the 1998 hit that turned a comparatively demure Britney into an international teen-pop sensation.
No buzz-kill ballads
B&A were the team behind Brit's terrific, cleverly constructed 2004 hit "Toxic." It's the electro-pop sheen of that song - and its 2001 predecessor, "I'm A Slave 4 U," which inspired Brit's MTV snake dance - that
aims to recapture.
Much of the time it does, albeit on tracks that barely require a singer's presence to get their work done. And that's one reason they work so well. Since the often-robotic sounding Spears doesn't seem to have it together enough to make a personalized emotional statement on Blackout, the album is refreshingly free of buzz-kill ballads, and the beats per minute rarely ebb.
Spears is largely a blank slate, though she does have two cowriting credits, on "Ooh Ooh Baby" and "Freakshow" - which rhymes with "peep show," which is what she says she wants to give us. But she's also the muse who brought all these beats together - or is, at least, the international superstar-slash-train wreck whose comeback CD any self-respecting big-shot producer would want his name on.
There are two songs on Blackout in which Spears means to say something serious about who she is, though amusingly, they're songs that she didn't have a hand in writing. One, written by pop star and Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams, is "Why Should I Be Sad," which seems to be aimed at Federline, with whom she expresses disappointment for "the stupid frickin' things that you do."
And the other is B&A's grabby "Piece Of Me," in which she refers to herself as "Miss American Dream since I was 17," and sings, "I'm Mrs. Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous / I'm Mrs. Oh-My-God that Britney's shameless."
Which she again proves herself to be, getting off a few good lines as she portrays herself as an unjustly persecuted working mother: "I'm Miss Bad Media Karma, another day, another drama / Guess I can't see no harm in working and being a mama."
There certainly is no harm in that, though there's also nothing on the hearty-partying Blackout to suggest that Spears is focused on attaining the skills to become a model parent any time soon. But being a pop star? She still knows how to do that.